CongressLine by – The Earmark – Part 1

Note: This is the first of a two part series on the topic of earmarks and earmark reform – Part 2 is here.

February marks the beginning of the budget season in Congress. This year, thanks to some criminal cases, one aspect of the budget process is under scrutiny in Congress – the earmark.

This is a fun topic to write about this month. It strikes to the very heart of Congress, the very heart of politics in America. It is the primary method by which Members of Congress and Senators deliver the bacon home to their constituents.

The earmark is legislative language that is inserted into an Appropriations bill, usually at the last minute, specifying how the funds in a specific account should be spent (or not spent). But isn’t that the point of an Appropriations bill? The purpose of an Appropriations bill is to appropriate money to the Government agencies. An earmark is more specific, more than just the money appropriated for the payroll, parks or weapons programs. An earmark is very specific. For example, an earmark may say, “$10 million of the funds appropriated should /must /may go to expanding the US Highway 29 in Marshall, Minnesota.” Even its staunchest supporters consider the earmark as pure unadulterated pork. Highway 29 at Marshall may need widening and maybe there are studies and efforts afoot in specific transportation programs to address it. But the earmark trumps those and tells the agency to spend the money anyway.

Let me first back up a bit and briefly describe the Appropriations process on Capitol Hill. If you can check your laughter at the previous sentence, I will try to describe the process in one simple paragraph.

The President sends a budget proposal every year, usually in February, to Congress. The Constitution clearly provides for the decisions of appropriating money and taxation to Congress. Congress takes the President’s budget, and each chamber works on their own version’s for a total of 23 individual appropriations bills. Sometimes Congress will pass a Budget Resolution providing guidelines for all of these bills. Appropriations bills cover a specific area of the government; for example, one for the Department of Defense and one for the Department of Agriculture, while some are mixed together, such as the Department of Labor and Department of Health and Human Services. Each chamber works its magic on each bill, holding hearings and then amending the measures in Committee and on the Floor, resulting in two final versions of each bill. The two versions need to be reconciled as only one actual bill can pass and be sent to the President. This is accomplished by a Conference Committee, a conference consisting of members from both chambers who work out the final version to be voted on by both chambers. Ideally this process will be finished by September 30 since the Government’s fiscal year begins October 1, but passage of the appropriations bills by September 30 has become rare. In order to keep the government running, Congress passes Continuing Resolutions that temporarily fund the government until they can manage to pass all the bills. Sometimes time runs out and all unpassed bills are compiled into an “Omnibus” or “Consolidated” bill. The critical point is this: Congress could wile the days away doing absolutely nothing in regards to other issues, but they have to pass the Appropriations bills. If they do not, soldiers don’t get paid, parks can’t open, etc. Appropriations bills being sacrosanct, they are the ideal tools for people to insert all the special requests that may (or may not) be able to pass muster on their own. Enter the role of the “earmark.”

The Congressional Budget Act was a 1970s attempt to “reform” the budgeting process. The modern earmark is a child of this Act and before this Act they were quite rare. If you wanted the highway widened in Marshall, Minnesota, you put that language in the bill and let it make it through the process like everything else. The earmark, however, is normally very secret. A Member or Senator gives a piece of paper to the Appropriations committee chairperson and it is literally put in a pile with all the others. Then it is included very late in the final bill often without anyone even knowing about it. Last year over 15,000 of these pet projects were inserted into Appropriations bills. I am amazed that someone was even able to count them! Federal agencies certainly count and track them very closely. When NASA is planning their spending for the new year, they have to change their plans to account and spend according to the instructions of the earmark.

There are several primary motives to insert earmarks into an appropriations measure. These earmarked projects, bridges, museums, rest stops, grants, etc., are supposedly critical to the individual member’s districts or states. They are the principal priorities of several thousand lobbyists in Washington. The cynic in me has always found it hard to believe that the people of Hawaii would vote in droves for a Senator who was able to get funding for honey bee research in Hawaii. Beside a handful of honey bee researchers and perhaps a cement contractor, who cares? But, many Representatives and Senators do not have the visibility of Hillary Clinton or Ted Kennedy. Earmarks can get their name and actions in the news back home. And besides, sometimes these projects are really necessary and important for a Congressional district. Some Senators have made their reputation in the Senate on being able to deliver these projects (i.e., Senator Ted Stevens, R-AK). A more sinister motive is that it isn’t the bee research center, but perhaps the contract to build the center, or a campaign contribution from a supporter of the honey bee research center. I, of course will assume the motive is the former, not the latter.

The news media focuses on the most egregious of earmarks, sometimes with the help of anti-pork legislators like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). Last year it was a bridge to a nearly uninhabited island in Alaska that caught much of the bad press. But a review of earmarks reveals them to be pretty innocuous. My fair alma mater got re-wired for the Internet in 2005. A bridge over the St. Croix River in my brother’s hometown of Stillwater, MN, is on track due to earmarks. No one in Stillwater would deny that it is an important project.

Reformers in Congress argue that if they are worthy projects, why all the secrecy? Why not include them in the appropriations bill with all the other normal budgeted items? The real motive I maintain is an age-old one – power. The committee chairperson for an appropriations committee holds enormous power by controlling the earmark process. If you want your earmarks, you need to curry favor with the chairperson. This raw power game became unhinged in December when Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), in a fit of exasperation with the status of the Labor-Health and Human Services Appropriations bill, deleted all the earmarks from the bill! It was an incredible act. Perhaps it was a harbinger of change for the popular earmark?

To a cattle rancher, an earmark is the tag they place in the ear of a cow as an additional method of identifying who owns the cow. But cows are also branded, and nowadays cattle ranchers are beginning to eliminate the earmark on their cows. Perhaps Congress will do so also with their earmarks? I am not convinced that Congressional earmarking will go away soon. Perhaps some minor revisions will be made. If they do, some other method may be created to take its place. Power doesn’t cede easily without a fight.

I will be addressing the reform proposals in Congress on earmarks in Part 2 in March.

Posted in: Congress, Government Resources